Life With Dyscalculia

This evening after work, I popped into the nearest shop to pick up a few things. When it came to paying at the checkout, I counted out the wrong amount of money. It took me what felt like forever to rectify my mistake and hand over the correct amount. I could feel myself going bright red and becoming anxious and flustered. All the while, the woman behind the checkout stared at me. I could tell what she was thinking: “Is this girl stupid?” She decided to repeat the total amount to me, in the tone of voice you might use if you were speaking to someone who didn’t really understand English.

I briefly considered apologising and explaining that I have dyscalculia, but realised that she might not necessarily know what it was. The vast majority of people I’ve encountered have never heard of it. For a long time, I hadn’t either.

Situations like the one I’ve just described are common for me in everyday life. It’s reached the point where I usually go through the painstaking process of counting out each coin before going anywhere near the checkout, which saves me a lot of embarrassment. If, like today, I neglect to do that, I end up leaving the shop feeling humiliated.

For those who don’t know what dyscalculia is, the best way to describe it is that it’s a lot like dyslexia, but with numbers or anything mathematical. But it’s much more than simply being bad at maths. It impacts on so many areas of life, whether it’s managing money, figuring out times, understanding maps or directions, or even just counting. While lots of people find maths challenging, people with dyscalculia struggle with the most basic numerical skills. And most of all, it leads to a great deal of anxiety and frustration.

Early on in my childhood, I enjoyed school. I loved reading and writing (and still do). I was always creative and spent most of my time writing stories or poems. I excelled in my spelling tests, and my parents were always told that my reading level was very advanced. But while my linguistic ability was strong, my numerical skills were non-existent.

One of my earliest memories of primary school is of running up to the teacher’s desk in floods of tears because I couldn’t do my sums. A few years later, I struggled with my times tables. I’m blessed with a very good memory, so I managed to bluff my way through by memorising my tables in order. This way, I was memorising verbal phrases without applying any mathematical logic. So saying “Three fours are twelve” was almost like reciting a poem. But if I had to answer a multiplication question at random, I couldn’t do it. By the time it came to learning long division, I was completely lost.

By far the worst part of my school day was mental maths. The teacher would fire a random maths question at you and give you just three seconds to answer it. Needless to say, I was terrified of being asked anything and embarrassing myself in front of the others in my class. I used to sit there, sweating and shaking until it was over. In my final year of primary school, my teacher decided that I was “a bit behind” and sent me for extra one-to-one maths classes. These did nothing for me. No matter how often the concepts were explained to me, I just couldn’t manage.

By the time I got to secondary school, I was a lost cause. For someone like me who still had to count on their fingers, algebra was like another language. I dropped down to Ordinary Level, but it made no difference. I was routinely failing maths tests, which irritated my teacher. Every year, my subject reports stated the same thing: “Needs to try harder.” That always annoyed me, because I couldn’t possibly have tried any harder. I spent hours every night slaving away over my maths homework, just as I did with all my other subjects. But while I was getting good grades in all the others (especially languages), I was still failing maths.

Looking back, if I’d known then that what I had was dyscalculia, it could have saved me years of distress and shame. But nobody understood. It was far too easy for people to put it down to not trying hard enough, not spending enough time studying it, not practising enough. It wasn’t until I was finishing school that I first heard someone mention the word dyscalculia and realised there was a legitimate explanation for my problems.

But there’s not nearly as much awareness of dyscalculia as there should be. There’s a kind of stigma attached to struggling with numbers, as if it makes you stupid. I’ve been laughed at and made fun of for making mistakes with things that other people would consider basic or simple. I’ve had people say things like, “Oh my god — can’t you count?” or “How could anyone get that wrong? It’s the easiest thing in the world.” It makes you feel stupid, even though deep down you know you’re not. And it makes you wonder why your brain can’t comprehend something that everyone else around you can.

When people say that maths is the basis of everything, it doesn’t help. We’re made to feel like failures if we don’t have those skills, like we can’t possibly succeed in life without them. Dyscalculia didn’t stop being a problem when I finished school — it affects all aspects of my life where numbers are concerned. Although things are a lot better now that I finally know what it is, it still presents me with day to day challenges that I have to try my best to deal with. But by talking openly about it, we’ll hopefully get to a point where people receive support and understanding as they cope with those challenges.